Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Image result for spy runner eugene yelchin

Summary:  Jake McCauley is a patriotic American at the height of the Cold War, wanting nothing so much as to have his father back with the family.  His dad was MIA in World War II, and all Jake has is a blurry photo of him holding Jake as a baby. When his mother unexpectedly rents out his dad’s old study to a Russian named Mr. Shubin, Jake is sure he’s a spy, and is determined to reveal his true identity using techniques from his favorite comic, Spy Runner.  The kids at school hear there’s a Russian in his house, though, and Jake gets labeled a Communist and is ostracized by his former friends.  A man with gold teeth lurking outside his house at night, a black Buick following him all over town, and Shubin’s odd behavior turn Jake’s life upside down, as he becomes increasingly determined to find his father, unmask Shubin, and prove he is a loyal American once and for all.  352 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Middle grade novel or Cold War film noir?  Eugene Yelchin has carved out a unique niche with this suspenseful story.  The narrator (Jake) seems clueless and unreliable at the beginning, ridiculously suspicious of everyone, but a dozen plot twists later, his paranoia starts to seem well-founded.  Yelchin’s blurry black and white photos of 1950’s suburbia add appropriately bizarre and sinster touches to this fast-paced thriller. A Newbery contender?

Cons:  It’s a pretty intense plot, with Jake almost getting murdered more than once by an potpourri of menacing characters.

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Recipe for Disaster (Didi Dodo Future Spy, book 1) by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Jared Chapman

Published by Harry N. Abrams

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Summary:  Cookie baker Koko Dodo (a character from Angleberger’s Inspector Flytrap series) has been robbed! His Super Secret Fudge Sauce has been stolen just hours before the big cookie contest that he always wins.  Enter Didi Dodo, a high-energy dodo on roller skates who calls herself a future spy.  She’s sure she can solve the case, and whisks Koko off on a whirlwind adventure, trying one scheme after another to track down the culprit, and leaving a path of destruction as they go.  The robber is tracked down, the cookies are baked, and Koko gets another trophy.  On the last page, Didi whips out a card reading “Dodo and Dodo, Future Spies,” ensuring at least one more book, which is scheduled for release in September. 112 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Kids will love the manic humor and energy of this new series by the much-loved Tom Angleberger.

Cons:  I liked the illustrations, but why didn’t Tom’s wife Cece Bell do them like she did for Inspector Flytrap?  Maybe she’s working on a sequel to El Deafo…we can hope.

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I wrote a book!

Remember the book A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel?  Me neither.  It was the first book I reviewed on this blog on February 20, 2015, and I don’t think I’ve looked at it since.

Three days later I posted a review for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, a book I still book talk many times a year and count among my favorite books of all times.

That’s the way it goes with reading.  Some books are just more memorable than others.

So when I realized that I’ve published almost 1,400 reviews, I decided it was time to do some weeding.  In a week or so, I’m going to take down the reviews from 2015 and 2016.  In preparation for this,  I’ve gone through all the books I’ve written about and picked out the ones I feel have stood the test of time.

I’ve compiled them into a book called Hit the Books: The Best of Kids Book A Day, 2015-2018.  There are about 150 books included; each entry has the summary I wrote on my blog and why it was included on the list.  They’re divided into eight sections: picture books, early readers, early chapter books, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, poetry, biography, and nonfiction.

I also put together ten lists of “Read-Alikes” from the books I’ve reviewed on the blog.  So if you have a fan of Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Raina Telgemeier, you can get some ideas for other books they might want to try.

Let me know if you find this book helpful.  Who knows, I may put together a second edition in another year or two!

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The Missing Baseball (Zach & Zoe Mysteries) by Mike Lupica

Published by Puffin Books

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Summary:  Zach and Zoe are eight-year-old twins who love sports and solving mysteries.  When Zach brings his prized autographed baseball to school for sharing, he is dismayed when it disappears during lunchtime.  Zoe is on the case, scouting the area for clues and trying to piece together what happened when the kids were out of the classroom.  Meanwhile, it’s Spirit Week, and the entire third grade is competing for points to see if the Blue team or the White team will get the highest score.  It all comes down to a final baseball game, with Zach and Zoe each captaining their teams, for the resolution of both the Spirit Week competition and the missing baseball mystery.  80 pages; grades 1-3.

Pros:  In his first foray into books for younger kids, Mike Lupica does a nice job of creating a mystery that has plenty of sports action.  A good series for fans of David A, Kelly’s Baseball Mysteries and MVP series.

Cons:  I found Zoe and Zach’s parents  pretty annoying; it seemed like every other page featured one of them offering advice or one of the kids recalling some pearl of wisdom from Mom or Dad.

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The Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton

Published by Disney Hyperion

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Summary:  Melissa, Wilf, and Bondi, three unlikely Chicago-area middle school students, are chosen to compete for a $10,000 scholarship.  A mysterious “Mr. Smith” gives each of them a driver, a cellphone, a debit card, and three clues to solve about landmarks in their city.  Wilf, the slacker, chooses to focus more on using the debit card than solving the clues, while Melissa and Bondi compete for money that they both could use.  Bondi’s the first to present his solutions, but when he realizes he’s made a mistake that Mr. Smith doesn’t pick up on, he begins to suspect foul play. Breaking the rules, he teams up with the other two kids, and the three of them uncover a plot with stakes much higher than the initial $10,000.  Combining their brains and talents, the three kids manage to thwart some bad guys, discover a good guy who’s been presumed dead, and find a way to treasure and a happy ending for all of them. 368 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A fun, fast-paced mystery with funny characters and plenty of Chicago history and trivia.  The text is generously interspersed with letters, memos, and texts that keep things moving along quickly.

Cons:  The Internet makes solving some of the clues disappointingly fast and easy.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond by Sam Hearn (Baker Street Academy book 1)

Published by Scholastic Press

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Summary:  When John Watson is accepted at Baker Street Academy, it’s elementary that he’ll become friends with classmates Martha Hudson and Sherlock Holmes.  The three have already started palling around when their class witnesses a robbery (“flash rob”) of a valuable diamond while on a field trip. For the remainder of the story, John is trying to figure out what happened; Sherlock, of course, is always several steps ahead of him.  A return trip to the museum results in a showdown between Sherlock and his archenemy James Moriarty, and the thief is revealed, along with a few other secret identities.  In the final chapter, John’s parents are off on an extended business trip and Sherlock’s older brother has mysteriously left for awhile, so Sherlock and John move in with the Hudsons at 221B Baker Street.  More adventures?  Elementary again.  176 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  Readers will find the blend of text, illustrations, and cartoon bubbles engaging, while getting a taste (in younger versions) of many of the classic Sherlock Holmes characters and settings.

Cons:  For a book targeted to younger elementary readers, there were a lot of characters to keep track of and a somewhat tangled web of a mystery.

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Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls by Beth McMullen

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  Abigail Hunter is mystified and not too happy when she receives her acceptance letter from The Smith School for Children, a boarding school she didn’t know her mom had applied to.  She makes friends quickly, though, and is settling in when she uncovers a shocking truth.  The headmistress Mrs. Smith is actually a spy, and so is Abby’s mother, Jennifer, who has gone missing.  Abby is recruited and quickly trained in spying techniques and self-defense, then sent to California to try to lure Jennifer out of hiding and get the top-secret information she has uncovered.  Nothing goes as planned, Abby is kidnapped, the mission is botched, and when she finally returns to school, she is relieved of her spying duties.  Determined to find her mother, she recruits her friends to help her, and sets off for their home in New York City.  There’s plenty of action and high-tech gadgetry, as Abby manages to free herself from one perilous situation after another and finally reunite with her mom.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Plenty of humor and action will make this an appealing choice for many readers, who can look forward to book 2 coming out next summer.

Cons:  You’ll definitely have to suspend some disbelief as you read about Abby’s non-stop escapades in the spy world.

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